The pull-up. It always looks so simple: grab a bar with your hands, lift your body up off the floor, and pull-up. That’s all there is to it, right?
For the uninitiated, the pull-up is actually one of the hardest ‘basic’ moves in the gym to perform correctly and successfully. It takes a large amount of strength and technique to do it right.
But when you can do it – without cheating or additional support – it’s one of the most effective exercises there is for your upper body and your core. So here’s how to do it, and if you’ve already mastered it, how to make it harder!
The mechanics of a standard pull-up
Before attempting any kind of pull-up, make sure you’re fully warmed up. If this is your first time trying one, it’s always a good idea to have someone with you; any of our personal trainers will be happy to assist.
Ideally, start with a pull-up assistance machine, rather than just a set of pull-up bars. Using a machine will allow you to kneel on a seat, and set a counter-weight that will assist you with the pull-up. This is a great way to get a feel for the movement (and practice good form) without putting too much strain on your muscles as you practice.
There are a few key things to remember when performing the pull-up:
- Ensure you have a good, comfortable grip with your hands, ready to squeeze the bar as you pull-up
- Focus on pushing your shoulders backwards and down, rather than pulling up with your arms. Think of it like a reverse shoulder shrug, raising your chest up first
- Squeeze your abs, core and glutes as you move upwards into the pull-up, helping to keep your whole body still
- Bring your elbows tight together, as you lift your face above the bar and contract your back
- Lower yourself back down in a controlled descent, taking the time to slowly drop down into a hanging position
- Try and perform one full rep effectively, and then move on to completing two or three. When you have mastered the movement, aim for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Some top tips to bear in mind:
- Don’t jump into the first rep – always start by hanging down to give yourself the full movement
- Never swing – you won’t get the full benefit of the movement, and could damage your shoulder sockets
- Remember to breathe – exhale as you pull-up, inhale on your way down
Why it’s such a great single exercise
Although it’s just one single exercise, the pull-up actually works multiple muscles and multiple joints. It targets your entire upper body, and delivers great results.
As you pull-up and then lower in a controlled descent, the movement can work both your biceps and triceps (more one than the other depending on how you grip the bar). The shrugging motion you perform will target your deltoid and traps (back and shoulders), and as you tense to prevent swinging, it also works your core and abs.
If you can do it right, it’s a superb exercise to:
- Tone your upper body
- Bulk up
- Trim down and lose weight
- Strengthen your grip
- Work your middle section
- Hit those bingo wings
How to challenge yourself further
Think you’ve mastered the basic pull-up? Well don’t worry – there are a number of variations you can try to increase the difficulty and intensity of your pull-up workout.
As long as you can consistently keep good form, and can manage a few sets of the standard chin-up, then give some of these alternative pull-ups a try:
- Change your grip: The simplest option to add variety to your routine is to shift your grip. Really hit your biceps with a narrow, underarm grasp, or target your chest with a shoulder-width wide grip.
- Add weights: Finding it easy to lift your own bodyweight now? Make it harder by adding more weight! Start with a medicine ball gripped between your feet, then advance onto kettle bells or sandbags.
- Keep your legs straight: Instead of bending your legs at the knees and crunching up, try keeping your legs completely locked and straight. Ensure they’re hanging completely below you first, then make things even more difficult by raising them, extended straight out from your body in a perpendicular angle. Hold them in this position as you pull-up.
- Shift to the side: Work your shoulders even more by performing a side extension as you pull-up. You’ll need to hold onto the side grips on a pull-up bar, and as you lift up from the ground you should extend one arm out, pushing your body to the side as you straighten the arm. This will shift all the weight onto the opposite side of your body with your arm bent at the elbow. Lower back down and to centre, then try switching sides.
- Introduce towels: Finally, if you’ve completely mastered the pull-up bars, then ditch them in favour of towels! Instead of gripping the bar itself, drape a strong towel over the top, grabbing hold of each end of the towel with each hand. Your arms will be close together as you pull down on the towel and pull your body up, focusing the move on your biceps and chest. Make it even harder by adding a second towel, and gripping each towel with your arms spread out.